CD Review: Freedom, by David Phelps

CD Review: Freedom, by David Phelps May 5, 2015

Summer has officially begun for me, and I’m excited! I have many plans, but writing more is certainly among them. I decided to kick it off by answering a request from some readers to review David Phelps’s new solo album, Freedom. I poked some fun at the album cover a couple weeks ago, but people wondered if I was actually going to comment on the music. So, for the first time in a long time, here’s my track by track take on the project. As you all know, I’m unfailingly honest in my reviews. So I’m anticipating that some Phelps Phans may read some of my feedback and get upset, even though I’m preparing to compliment many things about this album. Be it known, therefore, that I intend to monitor comments closely. With that out of the way, let’s talk about the music!

1. I’m Coming Home: This opening track is just odd. The lyrics are telling a hopeful story of a wayward prodigal finding his way home again, but the music has this elaborately ominous, epic minor-key feel. If this is what it sounds like for the speaker to be on his way home, I don’t know if I want to be there when he arrives! Memo: Always make sure your music actually fits the story your lyrics are trying to tell. It may sound cool, but that’s not the same thing. (As an example of how this should be done instead, listen to Keith Green’s “Prodigal Son Suite.” The percussive, angry-sounding themes are for the parts where the son is leaving his father. The part where he comes home is tender and wistful.)
2. Who Do You Say That I Am: Despite its promising title, an obnoxious throwaway cut. The writing is cliched, and the production is aggressively poppy. Cindy Morgan was involved on this one, but she must have been having an off day.
3. Rain: The Beatles vibe is agreeable, but Ken Medema’s “Sonshiny Day,” this is not.
4. Ghost Town (Freedom): This epic Old West recasting of the salvation story is a grand set piece. The lyrics are imaginative, but somewhat like Phelps’s other show-stopper “He’s Alive,” this one suffers from a repetitive melody in the build-up to the explosive climax. I also thought the production could have been reined in better in the earlier parts of the song. By the time the big hook lands, it feels like the arrangement has already been amped up to a ten for a while, so the pay-off isn’t as huge.
5. Little White Church: While it’s hard to picture David Phelps in a little white Texas country church, the fact is that he did grow up in Texas, so he kind of is writing what he knows here. Which is a little strange but sort of cool at the same time. From a songwriting perspective, this is the best-written original on the album. I think David should pitch it to Little Big Town.
6. Ain’t No Grave: This arrangement simmers just under the surface of boiling over, with David putting some grit in his voice and some ominous dobro in the background, along with some really cool bass singing BGVs.
7. We Shall Behold Him: Because David’s voice occupies that slightly uneasy middle ground that’s a bit too pop for classical and a bit too classical for pop, he sounds most at home with old-fashioned inspirational classics like this. That way, he can put a theatrical spin on the song while still retaining some pop overtones. This Sandi Patti chestnut fits him like a glove, though for those who are wondering, he does not sing it in Sandi’s original octave.
8. What I Need Is You: Two thumbs up for a piano-only track and a well-crafted lyric. This song explores the uncomfortable but necessary truth that we must be completely honest with God, offering ourselves to him completely even when our heart is not in it, and even when we don’t experience his presence in a tangible way:

I don’t need a voice of thunder
For me to believe it’s true
I don’t need a sign or wonder
Jesus, what I need is you

The only thing that doesn’t quite work for me on this track is David’s husky vocal delivery. The best way I can put it is that he’s not a naturally sincere singer. Please understand that I am NOT saying, “David Phelps is insincere.” I realize somebody will inevitably write an irate comment accusing me of this anyway, but just so I can have something to point back to, let me repeat in all caps that I’M NOT SAYING DAVID PHELPS IS INSINCERE. In fact, I’m saying that he wrote a very good song and a very honest lyric about dependence on God. And I believe that he felt moved while delivering it. But the delivery still feels affected.
9. Holy (Sanctus): This is David’s own setting of the Sanctus. I really like the melody and the clean, resonant way he sings it with his backup choir for the first half of the song. I almost didn’t want the drums to come in for the second half. It might have been even more powerful had the production been kept simple with the piano, in the style of one of Fernando Ortega’s chorale pieces.

10. Parable of the River: This First Call cover is another smart old CCM pick. Musically and vocally, it may be my favorite track on the album. The melody is very strong, and Phelps’s exciting orchestral arrangement lifts it out of its original, heavily synthesized 80s setting (although some electric guitars show up unannounced at the end, almost clashing with the orchestra). The acapella breakdown in the middle is quite exhilarating. However, while the lyrics are an inspiring metaphor for the body of Christ, the metaphor becomes a little confused in the opening verse. It starts with this picture of a city that’s being fed by a river, but outside the city walls lies a desert. The chorus calls the smaller streams and rivulets to come add their flow to the larger river, so that the water can reach the desert (i.e., reach people who haven’t heard the gospel yet). But the verse describes the desert people’s plight by saying, “The life in its water was there for the taking. No one drew.” Wait, I thought the whole point was that the water HADN’T reached the desert yet. This particular line seems to apply better to people who are NOT in a remote location far from the gospel, but rather have grown up in a Christianized culture and simply rejected it. I think the writers needed to take another pass at this verse. Otherwise, nice job.
11. Your Time Will Come: This is an encouraging anthem for discouraged Christians, much like something Steve Green would have sung in the old days, except it’s yet another new song penned by David himself. I especially like the arrangement’s use of church bells.
12. The Lily: This short piece based on Jesus’ description of himself as the lily of the valley is exquisitely paced. There are several very strong arrangements on this album, but this one would be right up there.
13. Heaven’s Shore: What a neat idea to take “Shenandoah” and put new words to it, along with a new chorus. The result sounds triumphant and hymn-like, with some beautiful vocal touches. I disagree with the way Phelps slid into the last note instead of hitting it right on, but otherwise, really nice.
14. When the Saints Go Marching On: It’s kind of fun to hear Phelps trying on more soulful, bluesy vocal flourishes for size on this album, and this track brings the fun to a high point. It’s enough to make even a Baptist bust a move or two. I look forward to seeing Bill Gaither choreograph a Homecoming moment around this one.
Closing thoughts: When Steve Green released an album called Woven in Time, an interviewer asked him to sum up the style of the project. He laughed and said, “It contains all the music I like!” I get the feeling that David Phelps has done something similar with Freedom, except he wears more creative hats than Green by also writing and arranging most of the music himself. In a surprising twist, some of the songs that I would have thought should fit his voice the least well were actually some of my favorite moments. I also enjoyed getting to know David Phelps the songwriter as well as the singer/producer. I’ve liked what I heard of his writing before, but this is the first time I’ve heard more or less a whole album of it. I appreciate the fact that he consistently comes up with imaginative ideas but puts in the effort to craft lyrics that rhyme and hang together cohesively. While some of his ideas turn out better than others, he shows a refreshing combination of creativity and discipline that southern gospel could use more of. In fact, there are times when his writing almost sounds more disciplined than his singing. (If only he could resist the temptation to slide into his notes as well as he resists the temptation to create lazy rhymes!)
At 14 tracks, the album does feel a bit over-stuffed, and there’s no question that several of them could have been left on the cutting room floor without being too terribly missed. Then again, I’m not sure I would have preferred an edited cut of the album, since there’s no guarantee that David’s ten favorite tracks would be my ten favorite tracks. So perhaps it’s for the best that he gives listeners such a wide array of options to choose favorites from. The finished product may not be perfect, but it hits enough home runs that it’s probably worth buying the whole thing instead of track-hunting on iTunes.
Rating: 4.5 stars

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  • Reese Bilby

    This is ridiculous, you ridicule him for sliding into his high note on heavens shore, but no recognition of the fact that he STOMPS the high note at the end of we shall be hold him or ghost town (freedom). There are very few people on the planet that can sustain the type of tessitura that david does in almost every song he performs.This article is not an incite of the album at all, but the “nit picking” of an artist who is dang near perfect when it comes to vocal acrobatics. I’m sure your one of those people who had a problem with david’s “the voice” album just cause of the title and that he decided to put his own label on nessun dorma. too classical for pop, too pop for classical, Seriously?

  • Jan

    Good review. It took me several listenings to appreciate this project. At first I was almost overwhelmed by the sound…does that make sense? I had to really listen song by song. I then found I really liked most of it…a lot. I find the musical arrangements pretty complex on some of the tunes and the more I hear the more I hear 🙂 I know, And David does appear to favor the minor- key feel, which I tend to like, also. I think you would agree that songs draw their appeal when they touch the experience of the listener. My favorites are Holy, Your Time Will Come, The Lily, and Heaven’s Shore. The lyrics on The Lily are beautiful to me. And I do like David’s rendition of We Shall Behold Him.

  • Anna Marie Penix

    Glad you took the time to listen to this CD. It is EXCELLENT in my opinion!

  • [impressive voiceover voice]: And so it begins.
    First of all, I did not “ridicule” David for sliding into his high note. I said I disagreed with it. I’m a trained vocalist myself, and I was simply expressing an opinion. To be honest, I prefer David when he’s not doing any “vocal acrobatics.” I do like it when he hits high notes dead in the center, like on numbers such as “We Shall Behold Him,” but I define “acrobatics” a bit differently.
    And yes, now that you mention it, I’ve always disliked his arrangement of “Nessun Dorma,” precisely because it’s neither fish nor fowl. I can’t fault David’s abilities, but he shouldn’t handle a classical set piece like a Josh Groban song.

  • JordanP

    I’m a David Phelps fanatic, so don’t get me wrong here, but isn’t an album review an op ed? It was also given 4.5 stars, so the nit picking must not have made a huge difference. This seems pretty well on par with all of the other reviews I read on this site. David is incredible, though. He can do what only a handful of other people on the planet can do. We are lucky to have him in Christian music.

  • Jan

    oh…and by the way…I heartily agree with you on the Nessun Dorma arrangement. I’m a purist about that piece of music. I was so disappointed when I first heard David sing it. Not what I expected, and I think he could do so much better.

  • Tad Kirkland

    I enjoyed reading the review more than I did listening to the record.

  • Judy

    Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach and critique. There aren’t many who could reach the hem of his garment.

  • Ann Westbrook

    David could sing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and be “off key” and I would chuckle and love it!!! Quit being so critical. How many people can sing like David? Not many!!

  • I’m sorry… are you talking about Jesus or David Phelps? To be perfectly frank, I think it would kind of creep David out to see fans like you talk this way about him. He seems like the kind of guy who’d much rather get honest feedback on his work than this kind of sycophantic nonsense. No offense.

  • Ha! Well, thanks. That’s how I feel about critics I really like, so I’ll take that as a high compliment.

  • Of course, he has a gift. And he does some great work on this project. I just don’t always agree with the stylistic choices he makes. That’s a pretty laid-back critique.

  • Yes, the fact that he sings, writes and arranges on this scale is really impressive. It certainly blows anything in current CCM radio fodder out of the water.

  • Selina

    Freedom is a beautiful piece of art by a man with God-given talents as a singer, songwriter, arranger, and producer. David uses those talents and abilities to give glory to God. I am deeply thankful David shares those talents with us, his Phans! You have criticized many things about the CD – everything from the CD cover picture to lyrics to vocal technique. Obviously, your intention is to bait the Phelps Phans into an argument. I would like to say I will not take the bait, but I suppose the fact I am posting here is, in a way, taking the bait. I won’t argue point-by-point or song-by-song. I think it’s sad for you to miss the messages wrapped up in these songs. It’s also sad for you to not appreciate the creative genius of David Phelps. I am one of many who will appreciate and cherish David & this CD for many years to come.

  • Judy

    Honest feedback? The only thing that is honest here is the fact that you obviously derive much pleasure inciting the reactions you know you will get from this kind of drivel. I don’t recall ever coming across one of your CDs. Perhaps you are just an obnoxious throwaway. No offense.

  • Saved Girl

    Judy, I don’t recall ever coming across a blog you have written. Who are you to so shallowly critique YGG’s critiquing and writing? After all, “those who can, do…”.

  • CLW

    What is it with people who think David is above critique? Good grief she just gave her opinion. There seems to be this notion that David is perfect. I read facebook comments and trust me his fans practically worship him.

  • Yeah, I see that. Not that I blame him for it. It probably makes him feel awkward, so he just kind of ignores it.

  • Yeah, technically speaking he has the chops to do anything he likes. It’s a conscious choice to manipulate it in a certain way.

  • Yes, another reviewer mentioned that it’s a bit of a chore to listen to so many big arrangements back to back. Then again, his taste in upbeat numbers doesn’t seem all that great, so I sort of don’t mind so much!

  • JordanP

    As an educator who has been a professional instrumentalist, and has sang professionally, I take offense to that comment. Many of your best performers also teach, and some of the biggest improvements have come from open and honest criticism. Being a fan of someone doesn’t automatically mean everything they do is perfection. Stop berating someone’s opinion because it doesn’t completely line up with your own.
    PS. David credits his career to his teachers. Maybe that will show you a new found respect for the profession.

  • Jan

    what I do not appreciate about many reviewers is their obvious aim to attack and disrespect the musicians/actors/writers they are reviewing. it’s as if they feed on it. An honest critique never hurt anyone. Not every person who hears/watches/reads someone’s work likes it. I’ve yet to read a review you have posted that attacks or disrespects a person’s dignity and that includes the review that initially brought me to your blog, which shall not be named 🙂

  • Well, it would be sad… if any of that was actually true. I’m sorry, but I think you might be the one who needs to pay closer attention.

  • Thanks Jan.

  • Judy, I have a pretty free hand as far as comments on this site, but I draw the line at sheer personal attacks. You’ve crossed that line. I’m afraid I can’t let you continue spewing here. Please take it somewhere else.

  • JOSEPH91

    I think much polemic in vain. what is undeniable is that David Phelps is an OUTSTANDING vocalist and a complete musician in the whole extension of the word. yankeegospelgirl only one thing: to criticize David is very easy, the difficult thing is to do what he does…

  • I acknowledge his many talents in this very review, and have in fact praised all aspects of this album at some length, in this very review. Some of my criticisms were not even leveled at David but at other writers. All of my criticisms were balanced and fairly worded. And in critiquing David’s style or technique, I’m not at all ignoring his skill as a vocalist. On the contrary, I respect him enough as a vocalist to recognize that he has a wide array of tools at his disposal, and I’m merely pointing out which ones tend to suit him best. So your comment really isn’t all that relevant.

  • Jan

    I really don’t want to sound snotty about this…and yes I said snotty….but where is it written that because David Phelps is amazingly gifted, I am required to adore everything he does? He is one of my favorite singers, and I don’t like everything he sings…so sue me! 🙂 🙂

  • Suzanne

    I can only speak for myself, but as a fan of David Phelps, I can tell you that I was already leery of your review before I ever read a word of it knowing that you referred to the cover photo as “ridiculous.” The fact that you used adjectives like “odd,” “obnoxious” and “repetitive” right off the bat just confirmed my suspicions. Having said that, I have no reason to believe you have a personal vendetta against either David Phelps or his vast musical talents. I only have to remind myself that your review is simply your personal opinion. I don’t happen to agree with it, and that’s OK. Admittedly, at first I wasn’t sure how I felt about some of the tracks, but the more I listen, the more I like them. But in my opinion, recordings don’t do David any favors. He’s at his best in a live setting where his voice can soar, his thoughtful spirit emanates and his love for Jesus is unmistakeable. Having heard him perform every track from this album in a concert setting this last weekend, I can honestly say that every song came alive and touched my heart in ways that the recording didn’t. Even if we don’t share the same opinion regarding some of the selections from “Freedom,” I think we can both agree that David is supremely musically gifted, not only in voice, but in his writing, arranging and producing skills. I, for one, am very thankful that I get to enjoy the fruits of his musical labor.

  • “Repetitive” is a completely objective term. It’s not a sign of bias, just an observation. “Odd” is a bit more subjective, but pretty mild, and I took the time to explain why I thought the tone between the lyrics and music was off. “Obnoxious” and “ridiculous” are the strongest words you mention, but all the people who left captions for the cover photo did seem to agree with me that there was at least room to poke gentle fun at the design.
    I appreciate your honesty, but you might want to consider whether maybe you could be more open to a different opinion, if just a handful of words are inclining you to be that dismissive.

  • joakim

    Mr. Reviewer,
    Have you listened to that duet that he sings with his daughter? I believe it´s titeled “Water”. I don´t know much about Music, but I Think that one is Close to something really nice with some more work on the Music.